When Assumption Trumps Objectivity
by Habib Battah (3 September 2006)
After four weeks of devastating Israeli air raids across Lebanon, American news network NBC began its Nightly News bulletin with its anchorman, Brian Williams, asking: "Does the US really have any influence in this war?"
Hours earlier on sister network MSNBC, anchorwoman Chris Jansing seemed to be at a similar loss. "Can anything be done to stop the violence?" she asked.
But to an American audience, the thought of a Syrian or Iranian news anchor posing the same questions would be fit for a comedy skit.
After all, the Syrians and Iranians wield an obvious "influence" over the course of the conflict according to the NBC channels, which like CNN, Sky and many other Western new organisations reported relentlessly on claims that Hezbollah's rocket imports were made possible through the help of its two "rogue" allies. But where was the parallel analysis of multi-billion dollar weapons shipments bound for Israel from the United States? Most Western broadcasters reported religiously on the number of rockets fired at Israel each day of the month-long conflict, often comparing fresh figures with those of previous days and weeks, even peppering the audit with analysis and commentary.
Absent however was almost any accounting of the daily tonnage of US-manufactured munitions dropped from an unknown fleet of US-manufactured jets levelling an untold number of Lebanese homes and villages.
On American television screens, the US role in this conflict was a relatively sanitised one, pictured as diplomatic rather than military; seen across negotiating tables and in visits to foreign capitals — a far less sinister role than that repeatedly attributed to the Iranians and Syrians over allegations of their financial and logistical support.
In fact, so penetrating was the alleged connection that some channels, such as Bloomberg Television, began referring to Hezbollah on second reference as merely "the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group". But why did Bloomberg not choose to identify Israel, the largest official recipient of US foreign military assistance for decades, as "the US-backed state"?
Whether the decision was deliberate or unconscious, the prevailing notion of non-military US involvement is just one of many underlying assumptions communicated by the US media about the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, assumptions that were continually reinforced in comments made by anchors and by hired analysts.
Viewed as part of an overall package, the assumptions appear to reflect US foreign policy, particularly the relationship with Israel, much more than the pursuit of journalistic objectivity.
Of course it would be unfair to generalise by suggesting that the Western media did a poor job of covering this war. On the ground in the midst of air strikes, ground fire and naval attacks, American and European journalists, particularly those reporting from south Lebanon, genuinely risked their lives to tell the story.
The efforts of many Western reporters operating out of towns such as Tyre at a time when the Israeli military vowed to fire on any vehicle that moved were no less valiant than those displayed by their colleagues from the Arab media. However, a clear difference emerged between battlefield reporting and the animated conversations that went on thousands of miles away in air-conditioned studios. At some points it even appeared as if the two were completely contradictory.
Beginning with the war in Iraq, American media outlets developed an obsession with hosting former military personnel as analysts, so much so that it now appears as if large American networks have become a sort of retirement programme for the US military's top brass. An inherent problem with this formula is a tendency to reflect the views and strategic interests of the US government rather than offer critical analyses that shed light on the complex realities of the battlefield.
Take coverage of the Israeli commando raid on Baalbeck during the third week of the conflict on August 2. The Israeli military had reported that it kidnapped five Hezbollah members, but MSNBC's reporter on the scene quoted local villagers who said those apprehended were "just nobodies".
Hezbollah also claimed that ordinary civilians, not fighters, had been kidnapped. Meanwhile Israeli newspaper Haaertz quoted Lebanese sources as saying that more than a dozen civilians were killed in the attack.
Details may still have been sketchy on the ground in the Bekaa valley but in MSNBC's East Coast studio, the view from its military analyst, Rick Francona, was starkly clear. Francona, a former lieutenant-colonel in the US Air Force, swiftly praised the attack as an "excellent raid" and "well done" on Israel's part. He then began to postulate confidently about the motives behind the operation, saying "Israel obviously had intelligence of high-profile targets" and naming Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, as a possibility.
But even Israel's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, appeared to be playing down the operation, with an article in Haaretz quoting him as saying "the soldiers had not aimed to take any individuals in particular, but rather to demonstrate that the IDF [Israeli military] could reach any part of Lebanon".
Not only does Francona manage to analyse the situation solely from Israel's point of view, but his optimism even appears to exceed that of the Israelis themselves.
Weeks later, on August 23, the Lebanese press would post pictures of the Baalbeck captives returning home, indicating that all five men had been returned to Lebanon through the International Committee of the Red Cross, which served as a liaison with the Israeli military.
The chief suspect had been Hassan Nasrallah; not the leader of Hezbollah but an elderly village farmer that shared the same first and last name. "They wanted to use us for propaganda about the arrest of Hassan Nasrallah," the former detainee told Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper in a reference to the Hezbollah leader.
Among the other returned captives were relatives and friends of Nasrallah, the farmer that is.
Looking back at the initial coverage, one would wonder why MSNBC and countless others chose to report the claims of the Israeli military machine over those of witnesses on the scene.
The Baalbeck incident was by no means isolated. Time and again, the TV generals seemed so confident in Israel's stance that any talk of malicious activity was dismissed regardless of pending investigations.
Another case in point was Israel's attack on a UN post, killing four observer troops, on July 26. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, quickly condemned the strike as "apparently deliberate", noting "a co-ordinated artillery and aerial attack on a long-established and clearly marked UN post".
The Irish foreign ministry said one of its officers at the post had made at least six warning calls to the Israelis during their bombardment. Reports also emerged of email correspondence from a Canadian soldier giving warning that the Israelis had been striking near the UN position for "weeks upon weeks", according to the soldier's wife who was quoted by Canadian TV as calling the Israeli attack "intentional".
Meanwhile UN officials quoted by Reuters said "the firing continued even as rescue operations were under way", while Annan called for a "full investigation" into the "disturbing incident".
But these multiple claims seemed to be of little consequence to the CNN military analysts back home. A retired US Air Force general employed by the station dismissed the controversy outright, saying the Israeli strike was simply "a screw-up, a major screw-up".
Assumptions over Israel's intentions were not limited to analysts but also to senior journalists, such as Tim Marshall, Sky's foreign editor, who confidently labelled the attack as "inadvertent" and "an accident waiting to happen" on the same evening as it had occurred. It was almost as if Marshall were pre-empting the Israeli government's apology and denial of wrongdoing, which would not come until the next day.
Instead of adopting a cautious approach to a developing story - as any good journalist would - the authoritative voices from CNN and Sky seemed merely to reflect the views of Israel and its allies. Listening to a press statement from the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, it almost seemed as though the press outlets had become a conduit for official statements. "We take them at their word," Bolton said of the Israeli reaction. "There is no evidence to the contrary."
Less than a week after the killing of the UN observers, the headlines shifted to another attack by Israel, this time in Qana where at least 28 civilians, including 16 children, were killed as a result of air attacks. Qana also happens to be the site of an attack by Israel in 1996 that killed more than 100 people - Israel denied responsibility at the time but subsequent UN investigations were inconclusive.
Israeli officials also denied responsibility for the more recent bloodbath, accusing Hezbollah of somehow staging the attack by firing from the area, using the civilians as human shields. Israel's UN ambassador, during a speech at the Security Council, even went so far as to entertain the possibility that Hezbollah "wanted and wished" for the mass killing.
American news outlets began to pick up the claim, despite the absence of ground reporting or any other kind of supporting evidence. As bodies were being carried out of the rubble, a CNN anchorwoman in Atlanta turned to an Arab media analyst and asked if Arab TV channels acknowledged Hezbollah's use of civilians as human shields. The analyst did not refute the claim but merely indicated that Hezbollah criticism was a taboo subject for regional news networks.
Later CNN military analysts would describe Hezbollah as a "terrorist organization" that breached Geneva Conventions by using human shields. Despite the lack of physical evidence in either direction, it seemed just as easy for the in-studio analysts to assume Israel's innocence as it was for them to assume guilt on the part of Hezbollah, even when the Israeli military did the actual shooting.
Israel's third "accident" came on August 11 when six innocents were killed as its missiles struck a civilian convoy fleeing the bombardment in South Lebanon.
Three days later, when the smoke began to clear and a shaky ceasefire took hold, the Lebanese death toll had reached 1,100, the vast majority being civilians. On the Israeli side, the majority of deaths were military, 117 soldiers and 40 civilians, according to Reuters. (Hezbollah casualties were quoted as a separate figure with the group claiming no more than 80 and Israel claiming more than 500.)
The vast disparity between Lebanese civilian deaths and those of Israeli civilians remained formulaic throughout the war, but the TV generals seemed to tell a different story, constantly using the adjective "indiscriminate" to describe Hezbollah's rocket attacks and "very accurate" in describing Israel's tactics and weaponry.
In fact, on several occasions, Israeli officials interviewed by American broadcasters touted Israel's policy of restraint and gave warning of the country's ability to pursue a "scorched earth policy" in Lebanon.
Interviewers often accepted such a response either by ending the interview at that point or moving on to different questions. One can hardly imagine an American interviewer remaining silent if an Arab official spoke of flattening the Jewish state in such genocidal terms.
Few phrases were repeated more often during this war than that of "Israel's war against Hezbollah" and "Israeli strikes on Hezbollah targets" mainly in South Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut.
The examples of this usage on NBC, CNN, Sky and many, many other channels were simply ubiquitous throughout the month of war coverage — the two phrases used many times a day as an introduction to the whole package of reporting, all framed as a war solely on Hezbollah. However, on the ground, there could not have been a more unrealistic assessment of reality.
According to a report released by Oxfam on August 14, the destruction across Lebanon included "7,000 homes, 160 factories, markets, farms and other commercial buildings, 29 water and sewage-treatment plants, electrical plants, dams, ports and airports, 23 petrol stations, 145 bridges and overpasses; 600 kilometres of roads".
The figures do not include damage to television towers, which were attacked in at least four different places across the country, disrupting signals and causing millions of dollars in damage to the Lebanese broadcasting industry.
Where were the TV generals to explain the threat of media coverage to Israel's war on Hezbollah? Lebanon's entire transnational road system was incapacitated by Israeli missiles, but when anchors rationalised this by speaking of "Hezbollah supply lines", where were the military men to explain that weapons could easily be smuggled through back roads and mountain passages?
Was it clear that Hezbollah did not have its own discreet transportations routes to begin with?
And when the Lebanese international airport was struck repeatedly, where were the generals to explain that rockets had traditionally been carried into Lebanese territory on flat beds and not commercial airliners?
The battlefield analysts seemed so transfixed on analysing Israel's invasion tactics that they rarely looked at the conflict from the opposite end of the map. So much airtime was devoted to Israeli commanders and military spokesman claiming victory, but Hezbollah representatives seemed to have been boycotted by the American press much as they had been boycotted by the American government.
In reality, Hezbollah was claiming victories of its own, but at times it seemed as if the American media were too busy reflecting their government's viewpoint to have noticed.
The TV generals dutifully relayed Israel's daily claims of destroying rocket launchers and medium-range missiles by shading overhead maps with digital pens. But rarely did they discuss Hezbollah's attacks on scores of Israeli Merkava tanks in what was seen as valiant effort at resisting one of the world's most powerful military machines.
If the shading of military maps proved too complicated for the American public to comprehend, broadcasters and commentators often broke down their assumptions in more basic terms. When Israel, for example, decided to launch a land invasion to claim all Lebanese territory south of the Litani river, CNN's Wolf Blitzer simply referred to the attack as "what some are calling a new Normandy," and "Israel's D-Day"; a reference to the Allied powers' invasion of Nazi territory in World War II.
When Blitzer began to discuss that day's events on the battlefield, he, like dozens of other American broadcasters, spoke of Hezbollah rockets landing in "Israeli neighbourhoods". Israel on the other hand, retaliated by bombing "Hezbollah strongholds".
But in reality, these strongholds were also neighbourhoods and support among their residents for Hezbollah could not have been any less than Israeli citizens' support for their own military. If Hezbollah areas cannot be considered neighbourhoods, then why not refer to Israeli neighbourhoods as "Israeli military strongholds"?
After all, a recent report in the Guardian newspaper in Britain by Jonathan Cook alleged that Israel also built military installations and mortar batteries near residential areas. In any case, the lack of balance is problematic: it conveys humanity on the one side and vague militarism on the other.
As another example, Blitzer conducted one of two CNN interviews with the grieving wife of an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hezbollah. But where were the parallel interviews with the families of Lebanese held by the Israelis? How could audiences really identify with the other side if all of its emotive, humanising details were repeatedly omitted?
In a show that aired on MSNBC during the first week of the conflict, Chris Matthews illustrated daily life in Haifa by comparing it with a city in California; "very modern", he explained. Cosmopolitan Beirut, on the other hand, where the nightlife rivals any capital in Western Europe, did not get a mention in the entire show.
Detail from Israel also entered the religious realm during a separate broadcast with Rita Cosby, an anchorwoman who qualified a report of rocket attacks on the city of Nazareth as an attack on the "home town of Jesus".
But where was the mention of Jesus's wine-making miracle in the Lebanese town of Qana during the mass killings that took place there? And what of the many other biblical references across Lebanon, in Tyre and Sidon when the two cities were subjected to continuous Israeli shelling?
In the end, some broadcasters ditched the metaphors altogether. Tucker Carlson, an MSNBC talk-show host, actually criticised Israel's tactics in fighting Hezbollah while interviewing an Israeli spokesperson. But he made no qualms with objectivity during his concluding statement. "I hope you succeed," he told the Israeli official. "And I hope you do it quickly."
Can one imagine an American broadcaster ever conveying such enthusiastic support to a Hezbollah official?
Habib Battah is the managing editor of the Journal of Middle East Broadcasters.